Intriguing political battles as Cumbria elects councillors for new authorities

Two new unitary authorities which will take over the running of all council services from next year. Credit: ITV News

Campaigning is well underway in the run up to local elections across Cumbria on 5 May, with councillors being chosen for two new unitary authorities which will take over the running of all services from next year.

Westmorland and Furness Council will be formed from the existing districts of Eden, South Lakeland and Barrow.

Cumberland Council will cover Carlisle, Allerdale and Copeland.

The councillors elected now will form shadow authorities, overseeing the transition, then serve for four years on the new unitary councils.

They will formally take over on 1 April 2023, when the county and district councils will be abolished.

The government hopes the reorganisation will simplify things, improve services and offer better value for money.

Tom’s explainer of Cumbria's council reorganisation and elections

This reorganisation is important for reasons of identity and practicality, but is also very intriguing politically.

Even with the restoration of familiar county names, and the fact that many current county and district councillors are running for election, each of the two new unitary authorities offers a blank canvas - with areas amalgamated, services to be shaped, and the election results able to offer a clear reflection on the state of the parties more widely.

As is normal with council elections, turnouts are likely to be pretty low, and voters we spoke to in both areas are juggling a mixture of local and national considerations - with the fallout from ‘partygate’ sure to play a role for some but not others.

In Westmorland and Furness, the Liberal Democrats are probably the favourites to lead the new council, having been pretty dominant in South Lakeland previously.

They’re focusing on local services including better footpaths, and action on climate change, and they insist they’re not thinking about coalitions.

That’s after Labour told us they could work with "like-minded parties" on the new council. They’re strong in Barrow, but have struggled in rural areas.

Their priorities include better transport links and improving residents’ health and wellbeing.

The Conservatives have had a significant number of councillors across the three districts. They have plans to fix potholes and ensure clean streets.

They want to make the most of the government’s levelling up agenda but say local issues matter more than national controversies.

The Greens argue they are the party that prioritises protecting nature and will hope to grow beyond a handful of councillors.

Independents have previously had a strong presence in Eden especially.

We filmed at the start of the week, before confirmation that the Prime Minister and Chancellor were being fined for rule-breaking in Downing Street during the pandemic.

Tom’s report on the political battle for Westmorland & Furness Council

Cumberland meanwhile looks like being a bit of bellwether for the two main parties.

The Conservatives have come out on top in high-profile parliamentary battles in Copeland and Workington in recent years, and gained ground in council terms too. They’re pledging to keep council tax low, and ensure the new authority is efficient.

Labour have been slipping backwards across the area over the last decade or so, but told us they are confident going into this election. They say their priority is top quality services at low costs.

Independents have had strong support previously, particularly in Allerdale.

The Liberal Democrats’ priorities include improving access to health services, as they look to find a way to appeal beyond Carlisle.

The Green Party are in a similar position, with policies including better public transport.

Tom’s report on the race to take control of Cumberland Council